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3 September 2016

Why Bright, Precious Days is the novel you’ll both relish and despise

The final novel of Jay McInerney's trilogy defies none of the criticisms levelled at his writing – but its infectious sense of fun is undeniable.

By Alice O'Keeffe

Is it possible to enjoy and despise a novel at the same time? Bright, Precious Days convinced me that it is. I liked precisely nobody in this book; the premise is ludicrous and the romance is flat; it has all the hallmarks of a past-his-sell-by-date author trying to rehash elements from his greatest hit(s). Yet somehow I sped through it with relish. McInerney may never have replicated the success of Bright Lights, Big City, his era-defining tale of 1980s coke addiction. But although it is hard to argue with criticisms levelled at his recent work – that he is cravenly in thrall to the super-rich characters he purports to satirise, that he clings to a dated “literary bad boy” image – he does have an eye for the ridiculous and an infectious sense of fun.

Bright, Precious Days is the final instalment of a trilogy about a Manhattan power couple, Russell and Corrine Calloway, which began with Brightness Falls in 1992 and continued with the 2006 novel The Good Life, set in the time around the 9/11 attacks. Here we meet them again in the run-up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, that heady period when the economy seemed to defy gravity. Corrine, who used to work as a stockbroker, has set up a charity distributing food to deprived areas of New York. Russell is struggling to keep his publishing business alive in a city that was once the “shining island of letters” but is now dominated by hedge-funders. They have two teenage children and infrequent sex – unbeknown to Russell, Corrine has long been carrying on with Luke McGavock, a handsome and handsomely rich banker- turned-philanthropist.

McInerney clearly has lofty ambitions of writing about the decline of literary New York. Although Russell and Corrine move among the elite at a succession of charity gala events and pretentious restaurants, they don’t have the kind of money that their peers do. Russell laments how they missed out on the biggest real-estate boom in their lifetime. Their trendy loft apartment is rented, their favourite holiday home is about to be sold and they beg, borrow and fib to keep up with the likes of Casey, Corrine’s best friend, whose wealth is rivalled only by her ghastliness.

There are frequent references to the way that the Calloways have chosen to be on the “Art and Love” team rather than the “Power and Money” team – but this trope is rather undermined by their seemingly endless capacity to eat out and host glamorous parties, and the suggestion that their main problem is having only one bathroom. They are not exactly starving in a garret, and any aspiring writer or artist trying to cling on to life today in New York (or, indeed, London) might struggle to sympathise.

It’s all rather silly, and the book’s plot doesn’t make it any less so. Corrine’s dilemma – whether to stay with her noble Art and Love husband, or to leave him for the other man – never really feels like one, as Luke is a kind of banker-by-numbers who turns up in a tuxedo bearing champagne flutes, caresses her manfully, and then says, “That was amazing.” Those who haven’t read the first two books may be baffled by the many references to Jeff, a tortured artist who sounds much more interesting than the Calloways, but who died before this book begins and whose connection to the story is never fully explained. His absence is compensated for by the introduction of Jack Carson, a literary bad boy of the old school, who keeps things lively with plenty of shagging, drug-snorting and an unfortunate incident with a ferret (harking back to Bright Lights). When he enters a scene, you feel McInerney perk up, as though he has suddenly remembered his raison d’être.

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The book’s strength lies in its detailed observation and mockery of the world of Manhattan’s super-rich, which is one that McInerney knows from the inside (his fourth wife is the heiress Anne Hearst, and he divides his time between Manhattan and Long Island). His portrait of this lifestyle may be more sympathetic than some readers would wish, but he is good at mockery: Russell, a New Age foodie, is so obsessive in his pursuit of gastronomic novelty that he wolfs down dishes that include crispy bulls’ bollocks and fish sperm; Corrine takes her son to a meet a liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger) at a charitable benefit but has to leave because the beast is looking at her son and licking its lips. The scene in which two stockbrokers indulge in competitive wine-ordering rings wholly true and could only have been written by somebody who has been there.

If nothing else, Bright, Precious Days provides valuable insights into a way of life that is as exotic to most of us as the townships of Zimbabwe.

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99, 416pp).

This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war